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All about narcissism: signs and treatment options

June 21, 2024
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

In today’s fast-paced and highly individualistic society, the term “narcissism” has become increasingly common in everyday conversation. Whether discussing a self-absorbed colleague, a domineering partner, or a seemingly egotistical celebrity, the concept of narcissism often evokes strong reactions. But what exactly is narcissism, and how does it differ from healthy self-esteem or confidence?

Narcissism, in its simplest form, is characterised by an excessive focus on oneself, often accompanied by a lack of empathy for others. While everyone may exhibit narcissistic traits from time to time, when these behaviours become pervasive and disrupt one’s life and relationships, they may indicate a deeper issue known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Understanding narcissism is crucial not only for those who might be grappling with these traits themselves but also for those who interact with individuals displaying such behaviours. Recognising the signs of narcissism can help in navigating personal and professional relationships more effectively, fostering a healthier and more empathetic community.

This blog aims to shed light on the intricacies of narcissism, from its defining characteristics to the various treatment options available. We will delve into the different types of narcissism, explore the signs and symptoms, and discuss the potential causes and risk factors. Furthermore, we will outline the processes involved in diagnosing and assessing narcissism and provide a comprehensive overview of the treatment modalities that can help manage and mitigate its effects.

Understanding Narcissism

At its core, narcissism is characterised by an excessive preoccupation with oneself. This includes a heightened sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. While everyone may exhibit narcissistic traits to some degree, especially in situations that call for confidence and assertiveness, pathological narcissism is more pervasive and maladaptive.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a specific diagnosis within the realm of personality disorders, recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). NPD involves a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour characterised by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding and consideration for other people’s feelings.

Criteria for Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with NPD, an individual must exhibit at least five of the following traits:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Belief that they are special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people
  • Requirement for excessive admiration
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally exploitative behaviour
  • Lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or belief that others are envious of them
  • Demonstration of arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes

NPD is relatively rare, affecting an estimated 1% of the general population. It is more commonly diagnosed in men than women.

Types of Narcissism

Narcissism is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. It can manifest in various forms, each with its unique characteristics:

  • Grandiose Narcissism: Individuals with grandiose narcissism exhibit overt arrogance, entitlement, and a sense of superiority. They are often charming and charismatic but can be exploitative and dismissive of others.
  • Vulnerable Narcissism: This type of narcissism is characterised by hypersensitivity, insecurity, and a constant need for validation. Individuals with vulnerable narcissism may appear shy or modest but are inwardly preoccupied with their inadequacies and seek constant reassurance.

Understanding these types helps in recognising that narcissism can present itself in different ways, influencing how individuals interact with the world and those around them.

Signs and Symptoms of Narcissism

While everyone may exhibit narcissistic traits at times, it is the persistence and severity of these behaviours that distinguish Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) from typical self-centeredness. Here, we explore the common signs, behavioural patterns, and the impact of narcissism on relationships.

  1. Excessive Need for Admiration: Narcissists often seek constant praise and validation. They crave attention and admiration from others to bolster their fragile self-esteem.
  2. Sense of Entitlement: Individuals with narcissism frequently believe they deserve special treatment and are entitled to privileges that others do not have. They expect others to comply with their demands and can become indignant if their expectations are not met.
  3. Lack of Empathy: A hallmark of narcissism is the inability or unwillingness to recognise and understand the feelings and needs of others. This lack of empathy often leads to insensitivity and disregard for other people’s emotions.
  4. Exploitative Behavior: Narcissists often use others to achieve their own goals, manipulating and exploiting relationships for personal gain. This behaviour can be particularly damaging in close relationships where trust and mutual respect are essential.
  5. Arrogance and Superiority: A pervasive sense of superiority and arrogance is common in narcissistic individuals. They may belittle or demean others to maintain their inflated self-image.
  6. Manipulative Tendencies: Narcissists are skilled at manipulating others to get what they want. They may use charm, flattery, or deceit to influence people and situations to their advantage.
  7. Arrogance and Haughtiness: Their sense of superiority often manifests as condescending and dismissive behaviour. Narcissists may look down on others and treat them as inferior.
  8. Fantasies of Success and Power: Narcissistic individuals often indulge in grandiose fantasies about their success, power, brilliance, or beauty. They may be preoccupied with thoughts of achieving greatness and being admired by others.
  9. Idealisation and Devaluation: Narcissists tend to swing between idealising and devaluing others. They may initially put someone on a pedestal, only to later criticise and devalue them when their expectations are not met or when they perceive a threat to their own self-esteem.

Impact on Relationships

Narcissistic behaviours can have a profound impact on personal and professional relationships. Understanding these effects is key to recognising and addressing the challenges posed by narcissism.

  1. Difficulties in Maintaining Healthy Relationships: The self-centred nature of narcissism makes it challenging to build and sustain healthy, balanced relationships. Narcissists often prioritise their needs over those of others, leading to conflict and dissatisfaction.
  2. Patterns of Idealization and Devaluation: Relationships with narcissists often follow a cycle of idealisation and devaluation. Initially, the narcissist may shower the other person with attention and admiration, creating a sense of euphoria. However, this phase is often followed by a period of devaluation, where the narcissist becomes critical and dismissive, leading to emotional distress for the other person.
  3. Effects on Family, Friends, and Romantic Partners: Family members, friends, and romantic partners of narcissists often experience significant emotional strain. They may feel undervalued, manipulated, and unsupported. The constant need to cater to the narcissist’s demands can lead to burnout and a sense of being trapped in a toxic relationship.

What is not narcissism?

Understanding the difference between Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and typical selfishness or self-importance is crucial for accurate identification and appropriate response. While many people occasionally exhibit traits associated with narcissism, NPD represents a more severe and persistent pattern of behaviour. Here are some key factors that differentiate normal behaviour from NPD:

TraitNormal BehaviorNPD
Duration and PervasivenessTraits such as confidence, ambition, or occasional selfishness are normal and can vary depending on the situation. These traits do not dominate the individual’s personality and are not consistently present across all areas of life.The behaviours and attitudes characteristic of NPD are enduring and pervasive, affecting most aspects of the individual’s life and relationships. These traits are present consistently over time and do not fluctuate based on circumstances.
Empathy and Interpersonal RelationsMost people are capable of empathy and can understand and respond to others’ emotions, even if they occasionally act in self-interest. They can maintain healthy, reciprocal relationships and show genuine concern for others.A significant lack of empathy is a hallmark of NPD. Individuals with NPD consistently struggle to recognise or value others’ feelings and needs, often acting in ways that are insensitive or exploitative. Their relationships are typically characterised by a lack of genuine connection and a pattern of manipulation and control.
Response to CriticismWhile it is common for people to feel defensive when criticised, they are generally able to reflect on the feedback and make adjustments if necessary. They do not react with extreme hostility or denial.Individuals with NPD often react to criticism with intense defensiveness, anger, or even rage. They find it difficult to accept any form of criticism and may go to great lengths to protect their fragile self-esteem, including lashing out at others or completely denying the validity of the critique.
Sense of Entitlement
People may occasionally feel entitled to special treatment, especially in specific contexts where they believe they have earned it. However, this sense of entitlement is not pervasive and does not dominate their interactions.A pervasive sense of entitlement is a core feature of NPD. Individuals with NPD consistently believe they deserve special treatment and privileges, regardless of the context. They expect others to cater to their needs and can become indignant or aggressive when their expectations are not met.
Relationship Dynamics
While normal selfishness can cause occasional conflicts, it does not typically result in a pattern of unstable or toxic relationships. Most people are capable of maintaining healthy, balanced relationships over time.Narcissistic individuals often exhibit a pattern of unstable and tumultuous relationships. Their interactions tend to follow cycles of idealisation and devaluation, where they initially put others on a pedestal only to later criticise and demean them. These patterns can lead to significant emotional distress for those involved.

Treatment Options for Narcissism

Here, we explore the various therapeutic approaches, the role of medication, self-help strategies, and the importance of support systems in managing and treating narcissism.


Different therapeutic approaches can help individuals understand and change their narcissistic behaviours and thoughts. CBT helps individuals identify and challenge distorted thinking patterns and beliefs. For narcissism, CBT focuses on addressing grandiose thoughts, entitlement, and lack of empathy. It helps individuals develop healthier ways of thinking and interacting with others.


While there are no medications specifically approved for treating NPD, certain medications can help manage symptoms or co-occurring mental health conditions. These may include antidepressants, mood stabilisers, and antipsychotic medications.

Self-Help Strategies:

In addition to professional treatment, individuals can adopt self-help strategies to manage and mitigate narcissistic behaviours. 

  • Increasing self-awareness is a crucial first step. Individuals can keep journals to reflect on their thoughts and behaviours, helping them recognise patterns and triggers.
  • Practising empathy involves consciously considering others’ perspectives and feelings. Activities like volunteering and active listening exercises can help individuals develop a greater sense of empathy.
  • Narcissists often set unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. Learning to set achievable goals and celebrating small successes can help build a more balanced sense of self-worth.

Support Systems:

Having a strong support system is vital for individuals dealing with narcissism. Support from family, friends, and professional groups can provide encouragement and accountability. Educating family and friends about NPD can foster a more supportive environment. Encouraging open and honest communication can help manage relationships and reduce conflict.

Joining support groups, either in person or online, can provide a sense of community and shared experience. Support groups offer a space for individuals to discuss their challenges and successes with others who understand their struggles.

Challenges in Treatment

Treating narcissism, particularly Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), presents unique challenges due to the nature of the disorder and the individual’s characteristics. Understanding these challenges is essential for those seeking treatment and for therapists working with narcissistic individuals. Here, we explore some of the primary obstacles in treating narcissism, including resistance to treatment, the necessity for long-term commitment, and managing the risk of relapse.

Resistance to treatment: 

One of the biggest hurdles in treating narcissism is the individual’s lack of insight into their behaviour. Narcissists often do not recognise that they have a problem or that their actions negatively affect others. This lack of self-awareness can make them resistant to seeking or accepting help.

When confronted with their behaviours, narcissists may become defensive and hostile. They may deny any issues or deflect blame onto others, making it difficult for therapists to engage them in meaningful treatment.

Narcissistic individuals often have deep-seated insecurities and fear of appearing weak or vulnerable. Admitting to needing help or acknowledging flaws can be incredibly threatening to their self-image, leading to avoidance of therapy.

Long-Term Commitment:

Treating narcissism is not a quick fix. It requires a long-term commitment to therapy, as the behaviours and thought patterns associated with NPD are deeply ingrained. This extended duration can be daunting for individuals who are used to immediate gratification.

Building and maintaining a therapeutic relationship is crucial for effective treatment. However, narcissists may have difficulty trusting and connecting with their therapist, potentially leading to frequent changes in therapists or premature termination of therapy.

Relapse and Management:

Narcissistic traits can resurface, particularly during times of stress or when the individual feels threatened. Recognising the signs of relapse early is crucial for managing and mitigating its impact.

A strong support system is vital in preventing relapse. Family, friends, and support groups can provide the encouragement and accountability needed to stay on track. However, maintaining these relationships can be challenging due to the interpersonal difficulties inherent in narcissism.


It’s important to remember that not everyone who exhibits mean or self-centred behaviour is a narcissist. Human behaviour is nuanced, and occasional selfishness or insensitivity does not necessarily indicate a personality disorder. However, for those who consistently exhibit the traits and behaviours associated with narcissism, seeking professional help can be transformative.

If you or someone you know is struggling with narcissistic traits, don’t hesitate to seek assistance. Professional therapy, combined with self-help strategies and a supportive network, can pave the way to meaningful change. The path to understanding and managing narcissism may be challenging, but with persistence and dedication, it is possible to achieve significant progress and lead a more balanced, empathetic life.


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